On September 23 1996, IRA volunteer Diarmuid O’Neill was shot dead during an arrest operation by armed members of the Metropolitan Police in Hammersmith, London, England.
O’Neill had been staying in a hotel room in with two other men, Patrick Kelly and Brian McHugh, all of whom were unarmed at the time. This arrest operation was the culmination of a six week surveillance operation against a suspected IRA active service unit. The surveillance operation, codenamed Operation Tinnitus, saw seven men placed under 24 hour surveillance.
This surveillance, which included the monitoring of men’s personal movements, the vehicles they were using, and their places of residence, as well as a storage unit in north London, which was believed to be an arms and explosives ‘dump’. Their conversations and electronic communications were also monitored.
In a covert search of the storage unit, police uncovered explosives, and munitions, this occurred with a synchronized covert entry and search of Room 303 of the Premier West Hotel by MI5, where Brian McHugh and Patrick Kelly had been staying, and where Diarmuid O’Neill was later murdered. In this search, two bugging devices were fitted with a recording facility and a video recording was made of the entry and search. No arms or munitions were found in the search of the room.
As a result of the intelligence gleaned from Operation Tinnitus, a decision was made to arrest five suspected members of the ASU. The planning and preparation of the arrest operation was based upon the intelligence provided by SO13 and MI5. The storage yard was allegedly discounted as a location for arrest, firstly, due to the presence of explosives in the vicinity, the danger of a stray bullet activating the explosives was a real and present danger.
It was therefore decided on Sunday, September 22 that the suspects would be arrested, simultaneously, in early morning raids the following day at three separate addresses in London and at Gatwick Airport. The police plan of entry to the hotel room where O’Neill and the others were staying centred on the use of a key to open the door to the room. This had been used previously for the covert entry by MI5.
If this failed, the contingency plan consisted of an enforcer being used to gain entry. In the event that neither the key or the enforcer gained entry to the room, it does not appear that at any stage did there exist, or was it indicated to officers that there existed, a viable contingency plan, such as a plan to pause, or regroup, and certainly withdrawal or negotiation was not considered an option, nor was there any provision made for the possibility that a member of the public may come across or interrupt the operation. CS RIP gas, a more lethal form of CS gas, was included due to what were described as fears for the safety of the officers involved. This, however, went against general advice that CS RIP gas should not be used against a subject with a firearm and with no knowledge of its concentration or effects in a confined area. None of the officers had any experience with CS RIP rounds, although they had previously been trained in the use of ordinary CS gas.
Police briefings took place in relation to the arrest operation, which comprised a number of “beliefs”. The most prominent, and precarious, of which was the “belief” that the suspects would shoot their way out. The assertion by the intelligence agencies that the men in the hotel room had access to arms and explosives was proven not to be the case, therefore questioning their motives for asserting such beliefs. Additionally, the officers were shown video footage of the IRA’s 1996 Canary Wharf bombing, presumably priming the officers for violence.
In the raid, neither the key nor the enforcer worked and CS RIP gas was fired into the room. A record of the police communication with the suspects, mainly Diarmuid O’Neill, was present on the tapes of the police entry into the room, which were retrieved through the security service’s bugging devices, and these recorded all three suspects surrendering. The interaction went as follows:
[Sound of breaking glass as CS gas is fired through the window.]
All: Jesus Christ!
[Sound of police attempting to batter down the door and shouting.]
All: All right! All right! We give up, we’re unarmed, we give up. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re unarmed. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
[At this point a number of officers were overcome by gas and left the building gasping for air]
Police: I’m a police officer. Get on the floor.
O’Neill: Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Police: Come to the fucking door now!
O’Neill: Okay we’re down, we’re down
Police: Open that door
Police: Get to the fucking door now
Police: Show me your hands!
Police: Show me your hands now!
O’Neill: They’re up, They’re up
Police: Get out here
O’Neill: We’re on the deck
Police: Show me your hands through the door, show me your hands through the door!
Police: Show me your hands
Police: Open it! Open the door
O’Neill: I can’t. It won’t
Police: Open it! Come on show me your hands, show me your hands! Open it!
Police: Shoot the fucker!
[Shouting by police followed by a burst of automatic gunfire]
O’Neill: Fucking hell!
[Another burst of gunfire]
All: Whoa Whoa Whoa Whoa!
[Sound of choking]
Police: [entering room] Dead as a fucking rat, just stay where the fuck you are. Just stay on the floor. Stay on the floor. One in the bathroom and one on the floor. Just keep your hands where we can see them, okay and don’t fucking move.
Diarmuid O’Neill appeared to have been complying with all the orders, against what were often contradictory instructions, that were asked of him by the police officers and appeared to have been in fact struggling to open the door. Officer ‘Kilo’ [his codename to ‘protect’ his identity], the officer who shot Diarmuid, insisted that his decision to fire was a result of the fear that O’Neill posed a threat to his life. He also states that he denied hearing any voices from inside the door; this is clearly contradicted by the recording from the surveillance bug. In addition, what the surveillance bug picks up is a shout, immediately prior to the shooting, of a member of the SO19 team shouting “shoot the fucker”.
Diarmuid O’Neill was shot six times and officer ‘Kilo’ was the only officer to discharge his firearm, firing six shots. He stated that he had fired the shots in pairs but the recording on the bugging device shows them to have been fired in two bursts rather than in bursts of two, as he claimed. He went on to state that when he opened fire, Diarmuid O’Neill remained in an upright position throughout, again pathological evidence contradicts this as the entrance wounds and the trajectory of the bullets would ascertain.
Therefore, the second burst of shots were fired when Diarmuid O’Neill was falling to the ground, according to the pathologist report, at the point the second burst of fire came, Diarmuid O’Neill was in a non-threatening position. The justification for the firing of the shots was that they were a pre-emptive strike in self-defence, but clear shouts of surrender are heard from the room, whilst the suspects are openly compliant. Officer ‘Kilo’ claims that prior to his opening fire he shouted “show me your hands, show me your hands you cunt”. This does not appear on the tape recording. Neither was there any warning given by officer ‘Kilo’ to Diarmuid O’Neill in regard to a warning of a commencement of shooting. What it does show is the contempt that he held for Diarmuid O’Neill and the other men in the room.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, a police officer was seen standing with his foot on O’Neill’s head as he lay dying before he was dragged bleeding and mortally wounded down six concrete steps onto the street. He was denied immediate medical treatment for 25 minutes although an ambulance was at hand. O’Neill subsequently died in hospital.
Predictably, the British and Irish media reported that an exchange of gunfire took place and that explosives had been found in the hotel. At the inquest two years later, such details were revealed as lies, again a well known tactic of disinformation had been used.
In the inquest into Diarmuid’s death, it pronounced that he was lawfully killed, although issues around fairness and credibility surround that inquest. No officer has been held to account for the death of Diarmuid O’Neill. Diarmuid’s death was an extra-judicial killing by agents of the state.
This is reinforced by evidence from those arrested in relation to the incident. Brian McHugh asserted a number of points when he issued a statement after his conviction:
“I was in a crouched position beside the bed I had been sleeping in and almost directly to Diarmuid’s left and slightly behind him. Diarmuid was trying to answer both policemen, saying ‘okay, okay’ to the man asking him to open the door, and ‘we’re on the deck’ to the second policeman. One of them shouted ‘open this fucking door now’, open this fucking door now was repeated again. In answer to one of the men, Diarmuid said he could not open the door, that it wouldn’t open. One of them replied ‘open it, open it’. The policeman fired two shots, hitting Diarmuid. Diarmuid said ‘fucking hell’, clearly surprised that shooting had started now that access had been gained to the room.”
Others who were arrested also stated that police officers told them that Diarmuid’s murder was a message to second generation Irish not to get involved.
This case has grave similarities to the killing of IRA volunteers Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell in Gibraltar. The relatives of the three took a case against Britain to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the British government had breached Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life, in a landmark judgement. Those similarities lie in the fact that ‘beefed up’ intelligence was produced in order to push the state operatives to a heightened state of anxiety and apprehension, which is in essence killing by proxy. The finger once again points in the direction of the intelligence agencies, MI5.
There has been a clear contravention of Diarmuid O’Neill’s right to life and those responsible should therefore be held to account on this matter, ranging from officer ‘Kilo’ who pulled the trigger to those who contrived to create these circumstances and denied a fair hearing of the circumstances that led to the death of Diarmuid, and ultimately the British state should be held to account in Strasbourg.
What is also undoubted is that there has never been an impartial, effective investigation into Diarmuid’s death, something his family consistently sought, and something that is clearly needed.